Today’s EDTVFest Social Mobility Summit was provocative and eye-opening but shows there’s still much work to be done when it comes to creating a TV industry that is fair and representative, writes Lisa Campbell.

Diversity may be the “lifeblood of Channel 4” as stated in its public service mission, but that has done little to stop it being crowned ‘Britain’s poshest broadcaster’, according to the most ground-breaking study into class in the industry.

These findings were first revealed by sociologist Sam Friedman at the TV Festival in August, and today we invited Sam back to help us keep the social mobility debate alive, and to move it on, by looking at key ways to break the class ceiling. He joined a panel of experts including people who have dedicated their careers to fighting for equality.

To be fair to the channel, it was their decision to commission Sam Friedman to assess the socio-economic background of its workforce back in 2016, and as he stated at today’s panel debate, the broadcaster is incredibly brave to be so transparent. Not all broadcasters were as willing to take part, or to tackle the issue, he revealed.

Nevertheless, as Channel 4 deputy director of programmes, and lead on diversity and inclusion, Kelly Webb-Lamb stated, the result is “embarrassing, but it is just true.”

She added: “The truth is, it’s an industry that’s posh.”

This is indeed an industry-wide issue. While less than a tenth of Channel 4 employees had working-class origins at the time of the study in 2016, it also revealed that every single broadcaster is substantially out of line with the wider UK workforce when it comes to diversity. About 60-70 per cent of staff at each of the leading broadcasters come from middle-class backgrounds. The figure for the UK as a whole is 31 per cent.

 

Panel (left to right) Sam Friedman, Femi Otitoju, Tracy Brabin MP, Jackie Long, Kelly Webb-Lamb & Dr Louise Ashley

“When it launched, Channel 4 was about being an alternative and not being the establishment and it tells you everything that it is now the poshest”

Jackie Long

And yet it’s worse for Channel 4 because, as today’s chair, Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor and Presenter, Jackie Long pointed out:

“When it launched, Channel 4 was about being an alternative and not being the establishment and it tells you everything that it is now the poshest,”

Webb-Lamb said that in the past two years, the channel had made “a significant improvement – but still not good enough,” and that of the 10 ways to break the ceiling that Friedman presents (see below), most of them are being adopted, including advertising all jobs and ending all unpaid work experience and internships.

EdTVFest Social Mobility Summit

The panel agreed on the more tangible challenges that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds face, such as not having access to ‘the bank of Mum and Dad’ or a London base, but there was some debate around tackling problems such as ‘informal sponsorship’ where senior staff give junior people a leg-up, but typically gravitate towards those who resemble them, or share the same background/cultural reference points.

‘Studied informality’ and ‘arbitrary behavioural codes’ that exist in TV – everything from knowing when to put your feet on the table to the use of irony and even wearing the right trainers – was another area where opinions differ. Is it down to organisations to interrogate its culture and change whatever is deemed to be alienating to people, or is it down to the individual to learn the codes and fit in?”

According to senior lecturer Dr Louise Ashley, who specialises in the diversity programmes in multinational companies, there are lessons to be learnt from the mistakes made in the fight for gender equality where women were told to fit into the dominant culture, which didn’t work.

“You often hear people in senior positions saying – ‘well I manged to fit in, I learnt the rules and it’s not that hard to do,’ – but they forget how hard it was, how exhausting and distracting, or that it’s different now.

“We have to expose how pointless many of these codes are.”

“We have to expose how pointless many of these codes are.”

Dr Louise Ashley

For Femi Otitoju, founder of training company Challenge Consultancy, the codes should be taught because young working-class kids shouldn’t have to sit on the sidelines and wait for longer-term policy or cultural change.

“We should be telling people the rules…so they are not terrified they will go in and split an infinitive.”

Tracy Brabin MP, a former actor, and co-author of Labour’s Acting Up Inquiry, said: “Fitting in was a real issue. I was from a council estate and had a broad Yorkshire accent and I was never offered a part where I’d need to wear a suit.”

She added: “It’s also about the storytelling. We need those working class stories and voices…in my opinion they are still not breaking through.”

Brabin also argued the case for more direct action, taking lessons from things such as all-female shortlists which have boosted the numbers of female MPs, and the introduction of proxy voting after Naz Shah MP had to discharge herself from hospital to vote.

She noted potential initiatives such as making class a legally-protected characteristic; giving Ofcom greater powers to force broadcasters to publish all diversity data on programmes; and making diversity targets part of performance management.

While Friedman and Ashley agreed there was little proof that the ‘business case for diversity’ was effective, arguing that people are more motivated by wanting to “look good” not bad, Webb-Lamb argued that managers needed to be properly assessed on whether they are boosting diversity

“If bosses are measured by it, they will make the difference,” said Webb-Lamb.